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Daily Mail (06/Jun/2008) - A real Psycho and his Birds

(c) Daily Mail (06/Jun/2008)

A real Psycho and his Birds

SPELLBOUND BY BEAUTY by Donald Spoto (Hutchinson, £20)

The movies are disturbing, the director of those movies was disturbed. Or, for 'disturbed', read kinky, weird, aberrant or even perverted. Donald Spoto, world authority on Alfred Hitchcock and with two major Hitchcock biographies already under his belt, paints a repellent and sleazy picture of his reclusive, odd-ball hero.

In the late 1970s, Spoto taped many interviews with Hitchcock and shared long lunches, during which the talk flowed 'very freely indeed'. Much too freely for Hitchcock's family, who, after his death in 1980, begged Spoto to leave his image temporarily untarnished.

We have to take Spoto's word for this, of course, and we have to trust that his 'never-been-told' revelations and 'previously withheld material' are authentic non-fabrications. If they are, then clearly the Hitchcock who waddles through his pages turns out to be a very strange man indeed.

His marriage in 1926 to the redoubtable Alma remained unconsummated for a year, until the first and last attempt resulted in a daughter. He admitted that his marriage was celibate, once declaring: 'I could have been a poof if it were not for Alma.' Actresses with whom he worked found him creepy and obnoxious. ' Nothing pleases me more than to knock the ladylikeness out of them,' he once confessed, adding: 'I don't exactly hate women, but I certainly don't think they are as good as men as actors.'

During filming, he enjoyed muttering obscenities and filthy jokes into the actress's ear, or unbuttoning his trousers, as if to expose himself, to achieve an expression of shock on their faces.

Ann Todd, on the receiving end of Hitchcock's smutty talk, recalls: 'He called "Action" then whispered the naughtiest things just before he took a close-up shot.' She remembers him as 'an overgrown schoolboy, who really never grew up' and as having 'a schoolboy's obsession with sex, an endless supply of very nasty, vulgar stories and jokes ... he was a very sad person.' She also recalls filming a scene on a bed when suddenly Hitchcock took a flying leap, ran across the set, jumped on her and shouted 'Relax!'. With his vast crushing weight, it's a wonder her bones weren't broken.

One of Hitchcock's party pieces was to demonstrate how to strangle a woman with one hand. Female strangulation, in fact, is a regular motif in many of his movies.

Increasingly, his on-set behaviour took a sadistic turn. Maureen O'Hara, 18-year-old star of Jamaica Inn, endured unnecessarily prolonged soakings with studio rain, immersions in sea-water tanks and much tortuous binding and gagging.

In Psycho, Janet Leigh, who angered Hitchcock by refusing to appear nude, was made to stand in the shower for long hours repeating the same gestures until her skin puckered and needed re-touching with make-up.

Madeleine Carroll was dragged around the set of The 39 Steps, handcuffed to her co-star Robert Donat, until her wrists were bruised.

Worse was the torture inflicted on Tippi Hedren during the filming of The Birds. For five days she was in an enclosed space, having live squawking and pecking crows and gulls thrown at her.

Special bands were applied round sections of her body, with invisible wires pulled through holes in her clothes and loosely attached to one leg of various terrified birds.

These landed on her, flapping and scratching in panic, unable to fly away. Hedren eventually broke down in hysterics. Doctors ordered her to rest for 10 days, with Hitchcock grumbling: 'We need her on Monday for the last few shots.' The obese, boozed-up, foulmouthed voyeur was partial to elegant, cool blondes. He became obsessed by his leading ladies, lusting after them like an adolescent and harbouring feelings which were never reciprocated.

As Spoto explains: 'He existed in a kind of prison. His frustrated passions brought him great pain.' Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly were victims of his harassment and sexual fantasies. With Tippi Hedren, his behaviour became pathological. He stalked her, listened in to private phone calls, and dictated her wardrobe and hairstyle on and off set.

She recalled her horror when 'he called me into his office and said he expected me to make myself sexually available to him, however and whenever he wanted'.

Spoto sees Hitchcock as 'a poet of anxiety' and 'a doomed romantic'. He also describes him as 'an abusive employer exploiting his dependent employee' — a man behaving in a way that would, today, land him in court on a sexual harassment charge.

Spoto believes that his biography 'documents the decline of a great genius who lost all control over himself'.

It certainly does, and it will surely satiate the modern hunger for salacious gossip and titillation.

It will also explain why many people, feminists in particular, find Hitchcock's dark and dated movies over-rated and uncomfortable to watch.